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It's nearly midnight. Warm Louisiana air lingers beneath a grayish swirl of sky that opens atop a makeshift prison yard. On four sides are dark brick walls, overgrown with vines and covered in graffiti, both running up to forgotten watchtowers. This hasn't been a prison in a very long time, but it hasn't exactly fallen into disuse. Squatting against trees and huddled around makeshift fires are the new inmates: squatters and cult followers of Jonah King (Billy Burke). An RV burns in the distance, crashed through what's left of the far wall. Another car, overturned, is in flames. Beneath it is the crawling form of Milton (Nicolas Cage), seemingly on his very last legs. Above him stands King, dressed like a rock star in bright red, poised to deliver the final blow.
Welcome to day 40, the final week, on the set of Drive Angry, constructed on the grounds of Shreveport's Independence Stadium. The man behind the 3D camera rig is Patrick Lussier, the director of 2009's My Bloody Valentine 3D (slight references to which can be made out in the prison graffiti) who, also co-writing, reunites with screenwriter Todd Farmer for a hard-R revenge flick in the grindhouse style, combining supernatural horror with some very, very fast cars.
Nicolas Cage stars as Milton, a vengeance-fueled father who breaks out of Hell itself to avenge the death of his daughter and save her kidnapped baby. Along for the ride is Amber Heard as diner waitress Piper. At their heels is William Fitchner as The Accountant, an agent of the afterlife charged with returning Milton to his eternal damnation.
As one of the mad minds behind Drive Angry, Farmer found himself following up one 3D film with something even more intense, paying homage to a lot of genre classics, but embracing cutting-edge stereoscopic technology.
"We wrote Valentine to sort of pay tribute to all the old slasher movies that we grew up with," Farmer tells Shock, "and I think that we did that. In a way it was a modern story, but it played to all those 1980 slasher movies. We did the same thing with this. Patrick wanted to do a 1970s road movie - you'll see, this is a modern story, but it's got so much 1970s 'in your face' feel to it. So that was the point. To take that stuff that we loved growing up and sort of do it for today.â€
"When we wrote it, we talked a lot about Vanishing Point, obviously," says Lussier. "Duel we talked about a lot. You know, that kind of story and then edgier stories like The Outlaw Josie Wales. That character's journeyâ€¦is a similar model for this character."
The lead, Milton, is named after John Milton, the 17th century poet who wrote Paradise Lost, though Lussier was tight-lipped when it came to specific similarities.
"You know, he's not really a [man]," says Cage, describing Milton. "It's more like a force from another dimension. It's almost like karma on some level. It's almost more than human, like a ghost on a vengeance tear. Like karma. I see him as a protector of children. When something horrific is about to happen to children, he is awakened from the abyss."
Beyond the supernatural elements, there was one very specific beat in the script that drew Cage to the project.
"I read the script and they said that [Milton's] eye was going to be shot out," laughs Cage, â€œand I remember on a movie called Season of the Witch that I wanted them to shoot my eye out with an arrow and the producers didn't go for it. So when it was handed to me in this movie that they were going to shoot my eye out with a gun I thought, 'Yeah, I'm going to make that movie!'"
"Nic is more than just a fantastic actor," explains Farmer. "He will get your movie made. The first thing that we did is that we went to producers. A lot of them said, 'This is what we'd do. If you'd do this and this right here, it would be perfect.' When we met with [Michael] De Luca, he immediately started quoting dialogue and he was just the most excited guy in the room. Five minutes into it we knew that he was the guy and while we were talking to him we asked, 'What would you do differently? What would you do? What notes do you have?' He said, 'Go shoot it.' When you're coming in as writers and some producer says, 'Lets go shoot it,' that never happens."
"It blew me away," De Luca recalls, "because I like hyper-pulpy super-violent kind of Tarantino- esque, Shane Black-esque, Jim Thompson-esque, hard R related character-based stuff. I like that two-fisted aesthetic. [Drive Angry] seemed to marry that single-minded personal mission of righteous revenge. It married that concept with the smash 'em up redneck car chase movie, Two Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point or Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. It seemed like a movie written by movie lovers for movie lovers."
"The opening of the movie is basically where we describe this guy named Milton chasing after these guys known only as 'the f**ers,'" says Lussier, "These three f**kers who are scared shitless. And we [meet them] probably five minutes before they [become] dead f**kers. And then the journey goes on from there."
Traveling across the back roads of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Lousiana, Milton is on the trail of Burke's villainous cult leader. Describing Jonah King as "a little cross between Jim Jones, Jim Morrison and maybe a little of Tony Robbins," Burke says adding that playing an outright villain is a chance to have some wild fun after repeat performances as Charlie Swan in The Twilight Saga.
"Everybody's almost the bad guy in this thing," says Burke, "[King] is just the worst guy. It's a pretty rare moment for me when I really go that far over the top. Sometimes when something gets stuck up my ass, I can be pushed to go there. But I normally don't like to. I like to stay within the boundaries of what I think is realistic. But in this movie nothing is realistic. There are places that I can go that I have enjoyed going."
Leading a cult of a few dozen, King found one of his first followers in Milton's daughter. After bearing a child with her, he killed the mother and has nefarious plans for the youngster.
Unfortunately for Burke, he doesn't get to drive all the vintage cars that his co-stars do. Jonah King's vehicle of choice is a 1975 RV, aiming for practicality over style just this once. The vehicle is part of his cult, whose Satan-worshiping members are each marked with his symbol, a pentagram with a crown on it.
"I'm normally not a research guy," says Burke on finding King's voice, "but I did it in this case. I remembered Jim Jones from when I was a kid. I remembered hearing some of the tapes from back then, and I immediately thought of some of that stuff. I did go back and listen to some of the Jonestown tapes for some of this. I don't know if anybody remembers, but that guy had a really bad gay lisp. I thought about taking that on for a second, but that would just be too much of an homage. So we 86'ed that."
Also against Milton (but playing for a different side) is Fichtner's Accountant, sharply dressed in the same suit and tie that he wears throughout the film. On the actors face is a small made up scar, sewed shut with a purple thread that he promises is the result of a decidedly cool 3D moment.
"I think this is the best role I've ever had," says Fichtner. "It's a really deep-layered character, and nothing's more exciting than that. Hopefully I've found the right rhythm. It's different because he's different. The first time you see him, he's just walking down the road, then I run into some people we've already met, a waitress and a short order cook. We have a little exchange and it's very interesting and it has a little ballet to it."
On Milton's team is Heard's Piper, the owner of a '61 Charger who comes under Milton's wing for reasons Cage says will have to wait to be fully revealed.
"[Piper is] the bad-mouthed, chain-smoking vigilante of the movie," says Heard. "She's a diner waitress. She's got a lot of spirit and a lot of spunk. A lot of balls, I guess you could say."
In real life, Heard says that she's not all that different from Piper, a fan of both gun ranges and the proud owner of a '68 Mustang was all the training she needed to take on the wheel in Drive Angry's back road chases.
"Surprisingly, they've let me do quite a bit of [my own stunts] on this," Heard laughs. "I fall from the trailer onto the hood of a Charger. We have a lot of gunfights and things fall on me. I even took the stuntman for a spin. And I have not been allowed to do that ever since."
The two hero cars of the film are Piper's '61 Charger and a '71 Chevelle, both specifically chosen for the way they look in 3D. With roughly 40 percent of the film taking place inside vehicles that go through a great deal of wear and tear, both the Charger and the Chevelle have a few backups, though producer Rene Besson isn't quite ready to breathe a sigh of relief about their survival until shooting is completely wrapped.
In addition to slick wheels, the final film also plans to have some great rock 'n roll tracks. Though nothing is completely locked as of yet, the plan is to use pop music against Michael Giacchino's score.
"Renegade", Farmer says was the big track during the writing process. "All of the Styx songs. All of the old '70s and '80s music. That's the stuff that's pounding in the background while we we're doing this stuff. It's a part of those movies. It's funny, if you go back and look at all those old movies a lot of times they didn't have the budget for music. Each scene here was written to a different time, whether that be 'Breakfast in America' or just different soundtracks that we had for different parts of the movie. I'm interested to see how it all plays once it's all put together."
As far as the 3D effects go, Drive Angry is shot with the help of Paradise FX and the Red camera, something that Lussier says has advanced incredible since My Bloody Valentine 3D. An on-set stereographer (Max Penner) allows Lussier to adjust the depth of the frame live and actually watch the 3D playback immediately after each scene.
"Oddly enough, it dovetails nicely with our retro aesthetic," says De Luca. "Our film, even though it's set in modern times, it's being shot like a '70s movie to the extent that we let scenes play out. It's not like quick-cutting. Quick-cutting is the enemy of 3D. It really is. But our movie is being put together like a [William] Friedkin movie from the '70s. It actually works for us. Because you want to avoid anything too 'cutsy' with 3-D."
"I'm trying to mess with the format," says Cage of the process. "How can I move differently? I was talking about sticking my tongue out and seeing if it would go into the 4th row of the audience. Sometimes there are happy accidents. We did this one shot where I was cocking the shotgun and the shell just happened to fly out into the lens of the camera in such a way that it was magical for the 3D format. But, of course, that wasn't rehearsed at all. It's always exciting when you can go into a mode where you can be both spontaneous and choreographed. Sort of in control and out of control at the same time."
Drive Angry hits theaters on February 11, 2011. Look for updates this week during our coverage of the San Diego Comic-Con.
Source: Silas Lesnick